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Which Will Dominate Online Tutoring: AI or the Gig Economy?

By Henry Kronk
October 25, 2018
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The market for online tutoring is growing rapidly. In April, Technavio estimated the sector would continue to expand at a CAGR of nearly 7% through 2022. Two forces are driving this growth: the gig economy and AI. While these two currently co-exist in peace, many predict that, across the board, the former is just an intermediary step to the inevitable latter. People who make this argument point usually to the large sums current gig economy platforms are investing in AI, along with the mainstay of capitalism which goes: “everything that can be automated for a competitive advantage, will be automated.”

Educators generally agree that the more time a student has with their teacher, the more effectively they learn. The ideal setting would be a one-on-one learning environment, or something close to it. Like many ideal solutions, this is expensive—prohibitively expensive for everyone except the very rich. Sessions at tutoring centers, however, are more reasonable, usually falling in the range of $45-$60/hour, according to Angie’s List in 2013. Still, that’s not necessarily affordable on a regular basis for even upper middle class families.

Online tutoring is more reasonable. Remote tutoring services can save on overhead costs and offer lower prices. The gig economy has also disrupted private tutoring in two ways: by offering similar services for even cheaper and by connecting more specialized tutors with learners who need help in a specialized area. This allows for a much wider diversity in price points.

AI-powered tutors, meanwhile, have made waves. Duolingo can usually be found in the #1 most downloaded position for apps in the education category. Other companies like iTalk2Learn, EdTech Foundry, and Thirdspace Learning have seen success.

But Will AI Replace the Gig Economy in Online Tutoring?

Many edtech companies and investors think so.

Quizlet, a platform that creates and hosts user-generated study tools, nabbed $20 million in series B funding in February to give AI automation a shot for their services. And speaking of Duolingo, they received a $700 million valuation with their 2017 series E funding of $25 million.

This summer, VIPKid raised $500 million in series D+ funding in part, “to leverage the latest advances in machine learning to explore and pioneer the future of learning,” said CEO Cindy Mi in a statement.

Many Chinese edtech startups using AI for tutoring purposes have benefitted from their government’s huge recent investment in AI technology.

The country in 2017 unveiled their “Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan.” The plan calls for expansion of investment and development of AI across sectors.

According to a translation by China Copyright and Media, the government will “Utilize intelligent technology to accelerate and promote a personnel training model and reform teaching methods; establish new education systems, including intelligent learning and interactive learning.”

The document also logs the promise to “launch the construction of intelligent campuses; promote AI in teaching, management, resource construction, and other full-scale applications, and develop [a] three-dimensional integrated teaching field, based on big data, intelligent online learning, and education platforms,” and more.

At the Same Time, the Online Tutoring Gig Economy Shows No Sign of Slowing Down

Postings continue to grow on freelance platforms across sectors. Of those postings, tutoring positions tend to be highly popular.

“Contract jobs in the education field seem to be keeping pace with the overall growth in flexible work we’ve seen in recent years,” said Brie Reynolds, director of online content at FlexJobs, according to Education Dive. “Education and training is consistently among the top career fields for the number of flexible jobs posted each month, and has been since we started tracking these trends about five years ago. In looking at the number of freelance education/training jobs posted to FlexJobs in 2014 vs. 2015, we saw a 28% increase year over year.”

The number of freelancers and freelancing work continues to grow. According to Upwork’s and Freelancer’s Union’s last annual Freelancing in America report, half of the U.S.’s workforce will freelance within the next ten years.

But at the same time, those freelancers will be dealing with an increasingly automized economy.

“We are in the Fourth Industrial Revolution — a period of rapid change in work driven by increasing automation, but we have a unique opportunity to guide the future of work and freelancers will play more of a key role than people realize,” said Stephane Kasriel, CEO of Upwork in a press release announcing the report. “Professionals who choose to freelance make this choice knowing that, as their own boss, they are in control of their destiny. Freelancers therefore think more proactively about market trends and refresh their skills more often than traditional employees, helping advance our economy.”

“The workforce is experiencing changes as never before, with economic transformation driven by new technologies and automation,” said Sara Horowitz, founder and executive director of Freelancers Union in the same release. “We must be prepared to face the challenges of the future, and build the organizations that will support the 21st century workforce. At Freelancers Union, we’re committed to building a fair ecosystem that enables people to learn new skills, be protected, and feel connected to one another.”

Both Kasriel and Horowitz have obvious interest in promoting the gig economy. In their imagination, the best way to survive the oncoming tsunami of automation is in the freelancer’s lifeboat, the gig economy.

It makes one wonder what interest others have who appear so certain in their affirmation of the fourth industrial revolution.

abstract painting
Art by Lonfeldt, Unsplash.

Predictions Are Cheap

While the gig economy remains precarious, K-12 teaching itself is increasingly being outsourced and automized. The Ector County School District in Odessa, Texas is currently considering what to do with their 246 unfilled teaching positions. In answer, administrators have considered remote teachers, who would stream in using video teleconferencing software to teach class.

No, that’s not an AI-powered solution. But if educators are willing to get teachers to stream in remotely, a few years down the road, they might also consider an AI instructor.

Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, believes that it will be just ten years before AI teachers replace their flesh-and-blood analogs.

Like many others who tout AI algorithms as teachers, Seldon views it as a means to increase access to education.

Speaking at the 2017 British Science Festival, he said, “It will open up the possibility of an Eton or Wellington-style education for all … Everyone can have the very best teacher and it’s completely personalized; the software you’re working with will be with you throughout your education journey.”

If K-12 instruction is possible with AI, online tutoring is too.

At the same time, however, other leaders believe that we’re still quite a long ways off from successfully personalizing learning with AI.

The company Amplify has sought to develop such a product until recently. Company CEO Larry Berger, speaking with Education Week blogger Rick Hess, summarized the challenge, saying:

“You start with a map of all the things that kids need to learn. Then you measure the kids so that you can place each kid on the map in just the spot where they know everything behind them, and in front of them is what they should learn next. Then you assemble a vast library of learning objects and ask an algorithm to sort through it to find the optimal learning object for each kid at that particular moment. Then you make each kid use the learning object. [The more kids use it, the smarter and better it gets.]”

“Here’s the problem: The map doesn’t exist, the measurement is impossible, and we have, collectively, built only 5% of the library.”

One Medium post by Ritabrata Maiti echos the words of the one penned by Joel Burke at the beginning of this article. Maiti writes:

“What can be mechanized, digitized or automated will be mechanized, digitized or automated. The question is When?”

Based on what has been described above, however, there’s another more compelling question hidden in this quote: what can be mechanized, digitized or automated?

It is already clear that some teaching can be automated. A study describing the use of AI in language instruction titled “AI in CALL [Computer Assisted Language Learning]—Artificially Inflated or Almost Imminent?” was published a full decade ago.

Educators generally hold that the more discursive fields of study, where one topic builds off the former and leads to another, are good areas to begin with automized instruction. Language learning would be a good example, as would math.

But for now, effective AI-powered instruction in the humanities, fine arts, social emotional learning, and more remains decidedly more fiction than science.

Featured Image: Art by Lonfeldt, Unsplash.